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I’ve redone this chapter so many times that I think it’s starting to lose its meaning. Every time someone agrees to read my book for me, I read this chapter to make sure it’s up to date with all of the massive changes that have happened in the overall story since then. I hope one day my betas will be proud of me and the unbetas will treasure the early copies that they didn’t read.
It was that moment when they realized that they were about to die. For Lanie, this was what always stuck in her mind, and came back now, when she was on the brink of death herself. Usually, she became aware of the fate of her casualties before they did. Even when she knew they weren’t going to make it, she’d continue her work, doing her best to stabilize, reassure, and prepare them for the more skilled hands. Surely, they would be able to fix whatever was wrong, no matter how bad it looked.
It was always predictable, the death of hope. To hope was to fall, after all. To love was to kill, and to trust was to die. It started in the eyes, when the attempt to be brave or laugh it off or remain stoic gave way to the tiniest crack of doubt. And then, that glass box of hope would bust wide open, unable to contain the mortal terror that burst forth. Sometimes, when the torrent had slowed to a trickle, there would be acceptance. But inevitably, whether spoken through words or eyes or the squeeze of the hand, there would be that plea that she could not fulfill: Save me. Don’t let me die. I’m not done yet.
It was bad enough when she didn’t see it coming.
It was worse when it was someone who had claimed to love her.
It was even worse when she was the one who had killed them. Whether she meant to or not.
Lanie’s mind dragged her out of the replay of all the deaths she’d witnessed and the one life she’d managed to save until she emerged, gasping, into the smoke-filled world around her. She wasn’t sure when exactly she came to, but her body instinctively fought the decline of oxygen inside what could only be a furnace.
When she tried to move her head, she was hindered by a substantial weight pressing on top of her. Something heavy and lumpy, that moved.
Person, her useless brain supplied, fighting its dying battery to come back online. Monochromatic, Staticky images flashed in the blackness: a white guitar, laughing silver eyes, a blackened marshmallow.
The weight on top of her pushed her into gravel. Spots of colour appeared in her eyes: a pair of pink panties, blue paper butterflies, a blazing orange campfire.
Then there were more memories: someone yelling, crashing into her, just before the world turned red. The voice was deep and rich, cloyed with panic.
Man, her brain regurgitated haltingly. Yes. He was laying on her back, with his head between her shoulder blades. One of his huge hands was around her arm, the other over her face. She was grateful to have had some cushioning against the packed ground, but between his squishy palm over her mouth, and his scorching, sweltry, hulking mass on top of her, she grew vaguely aware that she was soon going to suffocate and die.
She mounted a vain struggle to get her limbs under her, but he covered her whole body, and her legs were tangled with his.
Get his hand off your mouth.
Oh. Right. With what was left of her waning strength, she pushed until her face was free. At last, she could suck in a tiny, half-breath filled with the smell of burning debris. Flickering shadows played over the ground in front of her. Her limbs felt a little less like spaghetti, and she realized that she couldn’t see because it was dark out. They was lying on the road partway between the warehouse and the school.
With a heave, she partly rolled him off of her so that she could escape. A full, aching breath stretched her lungs almost to breaking, but it consisted of a toxic cloud of smoke and burned flesh. She tried to get up, but pain shot through her wrist. With it pressed to her chest, she used her other hand to get on one knee, but when she attempted to push up, it nearly gave out. She had to get up, though. Gritting her teeth and groaning, she forced herself to stand without blacking out again. Broken bits of her radio fell from her ripped pocket onto the ground, leaving stinging imprints in her hip.
When she looked at him, her heart turned to heavy, numb lead.
The back of his body was a bloody mess. In the looming twilight and crackling flames, the ragged blend of skin, clothing, and debris were sharp shadows. From his head down to his back and legs he was covered in rocks and sticks, and who knew what else. What skin was visible skin warped and torn.
Reality froze the hard-won breath in her lungs with a single squeeze. It all came back to her. The warehouse. The fire. The fertilizer.
That infuriating, galling, impetuous man. He’d ruined the mission and burned her life’s work to the ground. All those children who needed her – what would become of them, now? Not only had he slowly but surely destroyed her world, he’d done it with a bright smile and maddening, irresistible charm.
She’d told him. She’d warned him. She’d known that he could end up getting them both killed, and setting the Foundation board on the warpath.
Worst of all, she’d warned herself.
After everything Ben Goldberg had done to her these last few weeks…Should she just let him die?
Moaning, he tried to lift his head, then dropped it back down, stilling once again. Like passengers being sucked out of an airplane, all thoughts of abandoning him evacuated her brain. Only raw, agonizing terror remained. If he’d ruined things, she’d let him, and really, this whole thing was her fault. Her haphazard plans had failed. And without him, her smaller frame would have been obliterated in the blast. She owed him. She owed him.
Crouching painfully, she touched his forehead through his course, matted, black hair. Did he have a concussion? He’d hit his head, surely, and been blasted with a shock wave and flying detritus. She looked around, down the road to the east, and up to the west. The fire was contained to the warehouse in Sector 6, burning to the sky. Behind them, in the other direction, Sector 5 seemed unscathed. Was the rogue transport truck still by the bunkhouse? Was Jake still there? He had promised to help her.
“Hey!” she screamed at the top of her lungs, but her voice was too hoarse. She tried to calm herself, and remember her training. But her thoughts jumped between putting out the fire, finding help, and tending to Ben. Never mind the fact that life would be easier without him; if he died, that would be yet another mark on her record.
The night was ablaze. Her brain was a choppy mess, buffeted by fragments of memory from the evening. A celebration of life gone horribly, horribly wrong. Surely, someone would be coming any minute; Ben needed help, immediately. He could have internal injuries. He could be bleeding to death right now, and she needed to do something.
The flames stalked steadily forward through the brush. They couldn’t reach the other buildings, surrounded by gravel and concrete, but the heat and smoke were more than enough for her. Gritting her teeth, she knelt back down and put one hand near his mouth, and one on his throat. Was that a pulse? Or her own trembling?
“Ben! Wake up. You have to help me. We have to get out of here.”
His breaths grated and whistled in his lungs. Desperately, she scanned his back, trying to see. Was that vertical stick actually piercing his back, or stuck to something else? Carefully, she ran her fingers down its length until her fingers came to the place where it did indeed enter his slick flesh. Could it have punctured a lung?
Continuing to rasp for help, Lanie tried to figure out how to carry him. It was impossible. Through the pain of her knees, head, chest and wrist, she dragged him by getting her arms under his torso. Her hands kept slipping on the blood on his back as a gleam caught her attention – he also had a gash on the back of his head that glittered in the flames. Her fingers confirmed that it was deep, and trickling blood. Partly to take a break from trying to drag him, she stripped off her shirt and wrapped it around his head, tying a knot to the side of the wound.
Someone must have noticed the blaze. Surely, someone had realized that they were missing. The music at the party hadn’t been that loud. Had it? And Jake was expecting her. He usually appeared at the mere hint that something might be wrong with Ben. More than that, he’d gotten to the point where he didn’t seem to want Lanie dead anymore, and might even be worried about her. Had something happened to him, too?
Frenzied, she looked around. If she could get Ben across the intersection, the fire wouldn’t be able to cross the road. The grass was a lot shorter there, too.
“Come on, Ben!” she pleaded, trying to pull him by the hands. Hands too big even for his oversized body. Hands that could weave magic, whether playing guitar or drafting designs or kneading knots from her muscles. Hands that would never create again if she didn’t do something. Wild and desperate, she slapped his face, then started crying. Why hadn’t she kept up with her sandbag drags, and her other conditioning exercises? Her guard had been down. She’d been floating so high in a girly, romantic bubble that she had paid only minimal attention to the training she made everyone else keep up with.
As the smoke continued to swirl in her lungs and her body throbbed, her energy leaked into the shrapnel-strewn ground. Ben’s destroyed clothes tore away bit by bit as she hauled him over the gravel, trying to kick debris out of her way as they went. Soon, she would scrape his flesh down to the bone, even through all that fat. He was too heavy, too big around, and too hurt.
But there was no other choice. Doggedly, she continued, until she made it the last ten metres. Just before her muscles cramped and she collapsed next to him, she dropped his hand, and it thumped in the dirt. If she kept going, she would dislodge the bandage or dislocate his shoulder. If she hadn’t already.
Stooping, she tried to listen to his chest through the roaring in her ears. He was barely breathing, his strong ox-heart stuttering to a stumbling stammer. And there was that horrible wheezing. Yet they were still a kilometer away from the hospital.
Turning her tearstained face up to heaven, she fought back the memories of a previous night when flames had leapt into the air.
“No!” she bellowed, as loud as her destroyed voice would allow. “For once in my life, save someone I care about! What good are you, if you just let us die without caring? Save him!”
The one time she really needed it, there was no answer. Figured. Turning to Ben, she screamed into his face. “You listen here, you idiot! I don’t know how you managed to get yourself blown up, after everything that’s already happened, but you are not allowed to die.” His eyes fluttered, slitting open for half a second. She pressed her palms to his scraped cheeks. “You don’t get to take a blast for me and then die! You just finished telling me you were going to fight, as long as I’ll have you. Well, now it’s time to fight!” Furiously, desperately, she pressed her lips to his. They were cool, unresponsive and covered in dust, but she kissed him anyway, with all the strength of their shared past and newfound, albeit turbulent, friendship. “Don’t die. I’ll be right back. Don’t you dare die, not even for a second, or I’ll kill you, I swear.”
And just like that other night, so many years before, she took off at a run. Running for her life – the life of someone who was so ingrained into her being that to lose them would be to lose herself. She knew that if she didn’t make it on time, she wouldn’t survive. Everything hurt, but she was certain she hadn’t run faster in her life, not even when it had been Chelsea’s life in the balance. Even if her heart burst, even if her kneecaps fell off, she would run.
Or she would die.
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“May the God of hope fill you with all joy and peace as you trust in him.”
~ Romans 15:13